John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on September 12, 2012.
Like other liberals, I’ve been inundated with e-mails attacking the “lies” lately retailed by the Republican Party and the two candidates leading its national ticket.
Paul Ryan’s remarks about the shutdown of his hometown General Motors plant, and President Obama’s alleged deception about keeping it open, is the casus belli cited by most of the anti-Ryan/Romney truthers. But the Janesville/GM gambit seems to stand in for a broader belief among Obama partisans that the Republicans are “lying” on a grander scale than ever before.
I don’t disagree that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are dishonest propagandists (Ryan posing as the future savior of Medicare is the most laughable lie to date), but why isn’t Obama being held to the same standard? While the Republicans get slammed for reading back the president’s words to their advantage, Obama gets a free ride from liberals about his own double talk, especially on matters industrial and blue collar.
To be sure, all politicians lie, but Obama has distinguished himself with prevarications such as not closing Guantánamo and not even trying to raise the minimum wage as he pledged. And on “free trade” and tax policy, Ryan’s lies are no match for Obama’s powers of outright distortion. The incumbent’s rhetoric these days is populist, but his record shows him squarely on the side of the capitalist/banking class he purports to oppose.
Obama quickly reversed his pledge to “renegotiate” the North American Free Trade Agreement once in office and then compounded his hypocrisy by pushing through new job-killing trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. As far as I know, he’s made no mention whatsoever of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China or our tiny 2.5 percent tariff on Japanese car imports (not including pickup trucks)—two policies that contributed greatly to the death of the Janesville, Wisconsin, GM plant.
Obama’s approach to taxing the rich has always been timid, but he has repeatedly backed down when his foes make loud enough threats, as when the G.O.P. objected to raising the debt ceiling. Sacrificed was Obama’s commitment to letting the Bush tax cuts expire, which would have raised the top marginal tax rate a few points, to the still historically low 39.6 percent of the Clinton era.
Less publicized has been Obama’s reneging on another campaign pledge—to raise the capital-gains tax to 25 percent from 15 percent, which would have forced hedge-fund and private-equity partners to pay higher tax on income they claim as “fees” but that should really be treated as personal income and taxed at 35 percent. Much liberal hot air has been bloviated about Romney paying the 15 percent capital-gains rate for his ill-gotten gains from Bain Capital, but liberals evidently don’t find it appropriate to mention that the big Democratic congressional majority in 2009–10 chose not to raise Romney’s taxes when it could have easily done so.
None of this should be surprising to anyone who has read Obama’s campaign book The Audacity of Hope, in which he expresses his admiration for Robert Rubin, the arch deregulator who did so much damage on behalf of Clinton’s “new Democrat” lurch to the right. But what should be surprising is Obama’s hypocrisy about GM. With its initial 61 percent stake in the corporation, the Obama Administration could have insisted that GM preserve more American jobs (including at GM/Janesville) in exchange for the government’s largesse with taxpayer money.
But it didn’t, because the principal architect of the GM bailout was the financier Steven Rattner, himself a disciple of Rubin and his free-market church. Rattner’s plan wasn’t that different from what Bain Capital and Romney would propose: Refinance GM and Chrysler with other people’s money and saddle them with debt while both companies continue to shut down unionized plants and outsource jobs to such cheap labor locales as Mexico and China. Today, fewer than half of GM jobs are in the United States, and the corporation has made it clear it intends to increase manufacturing in Mexico and China.
The more pertinent critique of Paul Ryan’s “lying” use of Obama’s Janesville/GM speech would have concerned his choice of quotes. For it’s clear that Ryan’s speechwriters shied away from the more damning section about “free trade” and NAFTA. If Ryan and the Republicans had any guts, or honesty—if they really disagreed with Obama—this is how his speech would have gone:
“My fellow Americans, we need to face up to the reality and the ravages of globalization—the damage done by so-called free-trade policies that benefit no one but the financial class. Where we desperately need candor, we instead get deception and dissembling from the president. I know, because he was at his very worst in my hometown of Janesville. I’d like to quote from candidate Obama’s campaign speech of February 13, 2008:
“ ‘It’s also time to look to the future and figure out how to make trade work for American workers. I won’t stand here and tell you that we can—or should—stop free trade. We can’t stop every job from going overseas. But I also won’t stand here and accept an America where we do nothing to help American workers who lost jobs and opportunities because of these trade agreements. And that’s a position of mine that doesn’t change based on who I’m talking to or the election I’m running in. You know, in the years after her husband signed NAFTA, Senator Clinton would go around talking about how great it was and how many benefits it would bring. Now that she’s running for president, she says we need a time-out on trade. No one knows when this time-out will end. Maybe after the election. I don’t know about a timeout, but I do know this—when I am president, I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for the environment and protections for American workers.’ ”
Maybe in 2016, someone will run for president who doesn’t give duplicitous speeches like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama.